Every year in the run-up to the High Holy Days I do what you’d expect me to do: I worry. Not only because there is too little time to prepare adequately but because the need to decide on the topic of the kol nidrei sermon is agonising. Not there is any shortage of subjects. On the contrary, there are too many clamouring for attention.
Yom Kippur is the holy of holies of Jewish time. It is that rarest of phenomena, a Jewish festival without food. Its hold on the Jewish imagination is immense and undiminished, even in our deeply secular age. Look around the Jewish world you notice synagogues tend to be fuller on this day than any other. The atmosphere is vivid, the music solemn and majestic, the imagery gripping and powerful.
It is as if the world has become a courtroom. God is sitting in judgment. The trial is about to begin. The watching angels are terrified, and we the accused are worried, our lives passing under Divine scrutiny. It is a drama, a series of spoken and unspoken accusations, an emotionally demanding experience.
So, what is it that should chiefly concern us at the present time? A story is told about rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotz.
A Jew came to the rebbe, telling him he was overwhelmed by worry.
“What do you worry about?”, asked the rebbe?
“I worry about whether there really is justice and a judge”, he said.
“What does it matter to you?” asked the rebbe.
“But rebbe, if there’s no justice and no judge, then where is the meaning of creation?”.
“What does it matter to you?” asked the rebbe.
“But if there is no justice and no judge, what then does the Torah mean?”
“What does it matter to you?” asked the rebbe.
“Why does the rebbe say ‘what does it matter?’ What else could matter?”, he exclaimed.
“Well”, said the rebbe, “if it matters that much to you, then you’re a good Jew. There is nothing wrong with a Jew worrying.“
Can it really be that worrying is so important? As if what counts is our strength of feeling rather than the direction of our conviction? Tonight is a good time to think about the value of worrying and its sibling, uncertainty. We should be worrying this time of year (and if you’re not, start worrying now).
But where to start? Well, not with the existence of God. We don’t believe that the existence of God is so obvious that you’ve got to be crazy not to believe in God. This is demonstrated by an interpretation about Pharoah. The Book of Exodus tells us that Pharaoh doesn’t believe in God. And God sends plague after plague, sign after sign. And still he doesn’t believe.
What happens next? “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” For some, this means God took away Pharaoh’s free will. But one medieval commentator understood “hardening” as “strengthening” his heart. It’s as if God wanted Pharaoh to be free to doubt God’s existence, so his heart was strengthened.
If you’re looking for a life without doubt, without worry, and without risk, you’d better give up because you cannot live without taking a risk. God took a risk when creating humanity, although that risk does not seem to have played out terribly well.
According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b), when God was about to create Adam he created a group of ministering angels and said “Shall we create Adam?” The angels said “What will he be like?” and God then showed them a preview of human history and the angels replied, in the words of Psalm 8, “What is humankind that you are mindful of him?” – in other words, whatever you do, don’t create humanity, they’re bad news.
So God instantly destroyed those angels.
God created a second group of angels and said “Shall we create humankind?” and the second group said the same as the first, so God destroyed them too. And God created a third group and said “Shall we create humankind?” and the angels said “Well, the first two groups tried to tell you their honest opinion and it didn’t help them much so, Almighty, the world is yours, do with it as you wish”.
God then created Adam. And, when it came to the generation of the flood, the angels said “God, we told you so”. And God replied in the wonderful words of Isaiah (46:4), “Even to old age I remain the same, and to grey hairs I will still suffer”. In other words, God has more faith in humanity than we seem to.
Why? The answer is found in a verse from Jeremiah we read over the High Holy Days, “I remember the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal, how you were willing to fall on me into an unknown, uncertain land.” (2.2)
According to Jeremiah, God loves Israel because the people had the courage to take a risk, to go into a place they’d never seen before, with no map and no roads, just the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. They kept going regardless of the worry. Like Abraham and Sarah, they were prepared to journey into the unknown, to face doubt and uncertainty.
Judaism means having the courage to take a risk, to face the unknown.
The whole of life is facing the unknown. Even though we can look up to the heaven and see galaxies, each of 100 billion stars; or we can look at our insides, at the human genome with its 3.1 billion letters of genetic code, we think we know nearly everything, but… there is one thing we will never know: what tomorrow will bring.
We face an unknown and unknowable future. That means that every single course of action we take, every commitment has its underside of doubt. It’s the ability to acknowledge that worry and yet say, nonetheless, I will take a risk. That is what faith is. Not the absence of doubt, but the ability to recognise doubt, live with it; to take the risk of living with uncertainty. Honest worry is more powerful than dishonest belief.
That is why so many passages from the Torah narrate life fraught with difficulties, real and imagined. Judaism does not pretend that life is any easier than it is. The road is not straight and the journey is long. Unexpected things happen. Crises suddenly appear. Embedded in our history is the memory that we can handle the unknown.
Other nations told stories that celebrated their strength. They built palaces and castles as expressions of invincibility. Jewish history was different. Jews carried with them a story about the uncertainties and hazards of history. They spoke of their ancestors’ journey through the wilderness without homes, houses, or protection against the elements.
It is a story of spiritual, not military, power, countering today’s desire to rely on military strength, be it the Russian invasion of Ukraine or Chinese threats to Taiwan. But the desire for military power is not only found among the nations of the world but also among its faiths: in the Christian, Hindu, Muslim and even Buddhist worlds. And, shamefully, it is amply matched by our own where we witness a mood of self-righteousness and aggressiveness, spreading from the state of Israel to the diaspora.
In Israel, there has occurred a marked increase in intemperance, abrasiveness and aggressiveness, fuelled by the lethal combination of religious fundamentalism, chauvinistic nationalism and political demagoguery. The so-called religious parties, with the connivance of the Far-Right, pine for a theocratic society that seeks to delegitimise Muslims and Christians, as well as secular and Progressive Jews.
An extreme right wing Israeli Government has, in the space of a few months, inflicted incalculable damage on the country’s morality, reputation and prospects of peace. Ugly Jewish fundamentalism is raising its head, both in the Knesset and beyond, and the battle needs to be fought against Jewish extremism and its garb of intolerant certainties, which are no less than a disgrace to the Jewish people and… an aberration from Jewish history, a violation of the Torah.
What it all comes to is a world-wide escalation of prejudice and small-mindedness. And in that dismal development we Jews, especially on kol nidrei, must confess our shame that we are far from having constituted an honourable exception.
Yet, yet, Judaism, indeed religion as a whole, is at its best when it becomes a counter-cultural force; When it offers not power, but influence, no authority except that which it earns, no claim to people’s attention other than that by the way it creates values. Only then, will it lose a tendency to corruption and reliance on military strength and become again what it once was – a startling new voice, redeeming us from our loneliness, framing our existence with meaning, and teaching us to remember what so much else persuades us to forget – that the possibilities of changing the world for the better are all around us.
Alongside, Jeremiah, other prophets such as Elijah and Isaiah, had the courage to speak truth to power. It didn’t make them popular. As King Ahab said to Elijah, who accused him of abusing his office: Is that you, you troublemaker of Israel?
We don’t have prophets nowadays. But what do have, especially in our Progressive Jewish movement, (both Liberal and Reform), is the tradition of holding power accountable to truth, refusing to be fobbed off with evasions and equivocations, demonstrating moral passion.
On Yom Kippur we pray to be written into the Book of Life. But as we face the coming year, we cannot escape exposure to risk. That is what life is. That’s how we tame our worry and fear of the unknown.
If Jews are to venture into the unknown, we need courage: to do something new and to take the road less travelled. It took courage to challenge the religions of the ancient world, especially when they were the greatest empires of their time. Jews and Judaism must have seemed small and parochial when set against the cosmopolitan culture of Ancient Greece or the power of the Roman Empire.
This is why God began the Jewish people not with Noah but with Abraham. Noah, says the Torah, “walked with God” (6:9). But God said to Abraham, “Walk on ahead of Me” (Gen. 17:1). The implication is that when it comes to rebuilding a shattered world or a broken dream, don’t wait for permission from Heaven. Heaven is telling you to go ahead.
But you have to be prepared to be lonely, at best misunderstood, at worst vilified and defamed. As Einstein said, “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare me a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”
My message to you tonight is to take courage and take a risk; to begin a journey to a distant destination knowing that there will be hazards along the way; knowing that our strength is not a reliance on certainty, but living with uncertainty, acknowledging worry and asking questions.
What is the asking of a question if not itself a profound expression of faith in the intelligibility of the universe and the meaningfulness of human life? To ask is to believe that somewhere there is an answer. Far from our religion excluding questions, questions testify to our faith – that the world is not random, the universe not impervious to our understanding, life is not blind chance. When faith suppresses questions, it dies; when it accepts superficial answers, it begins to wither. Faith is not opposed to uncertainty. What it is opposed to is the shallow certainty that we understand all there is.
Our strength to live with questions. Our faith is not a sense of invulnerability. It is the knowledge that we are utterly vulnerable, but that it is precisely in our vulnerability that we reach out to God, and through this learn to reach out to others, to understand their worries and doubts. We learn to share, and in sharing, discover the road to freedom. It’s only because we are not gods that we are able to discover God.
In recent times, religion has once again become its own worst enemy; when we make gods in our image instead of letting God remake us in His. We have confused righteousness with its opposite, self-righteousness. We have forgotten the saying, “better the sinner who knows he is a sinner than the saint who believes he is a saint”.
God is not the sum of our wants. God is not the answer to our ignorance, who comes with a scientific explanation of the universe. Nor is God the interventionist who relieves us from the responsibility of mending the world. Marxists say whatever we do has economic causes, socio-biologists say it has illusory causes; others say it has genetic causes and we say no, over and above all those things – which may be real and powerful – we still can choose and because we can choose, we are not prisoners of fate: we can redeem humanity.
We know that eternity preceded us and Infinity will come after us, yet we also know that this day, this moment, this place, this circumstance is full of the light of infinite radiance, whose proof is the mere fact that we are here to experience it. At its height, faith is none other than the knowledge that “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me”.
Knowing, we are known. Feeling, we are felt. Living we are lived. If we make ourselves transparent to existence, then our lives will radiate divine presence, giving hope to those whose lives we touch and hearing that honest voice of the Jewish conscience again loudly, fearlessly and unequivocally, for our sake, for the sake of our children and for the future of our world so that we become what we are truly called on to be.